How Big is the Universe?
A Collage of Readings, Sayings, and Images
In Other Epochs of the Universe,
When Other Laws of Nature are Reigning
-- Alfred North Whitehead
How Big is the Universe?
Imagining the Color Green
For example, we know about the colour green in some of its perspectives. But what green is capable of in other epochs of the universe, when other laws of nature are reigning, is beyond our present imaginations. And yet there is nothing intrinsically impossible in the notion that, as years pass, mankind may gain an imaginative insight into some alternative possibility of nature, and may therefore gain understanding of the possibilities of green in other imagined epochs.
You would think Whitehead is a science fiction writer. He speaks of epochs of the universe when other laws of nature are reigning, and adds that we might gain imaginative insights into these other worlds and laws, including insights into the very nature of the color green.
But he is writing as a philosopher, not a science fiction writer; and he is assuming that the universe unfolds in terms of cosmic epochs, each of which last billions upon billions of years. We are living in one of those epochs, amid which the laws of electromagnetism are habitual. In other epochs other laws might be more prevalent. Whitehead is also assuming that the human imagination can entertain abstract potentialities which may not be actualized in our cosmic epoch, but which may be actualized in others. One of the gifts of science fiction writers is that they stretch our imaginations in these directions.
In short, Whitehead believed in at least two kinds of spaciousness: a spacious universe and a spacious imagination. It is not surprising that he would write books with titles like Modes of Thought and Process and Reality and Adventures of Ideas. He liked to explore ideas.
Much of JJB is devoted to aspects of Whitehead's thought that are primarily relevant to lived human experience on the planet earth. Our articles deal with food, music, sports, storytelling, education, and finding meaning in daily life. We also talk a lot about our need to live wisely and compassionately, helping build communities that are sustainable and sustaining for people and other living beings. All of this is very earth-bound, and happily so.
In this essay I want to introduce readers to the more cosmic side of Whitehead's philosophy, building upon the idea developed in the video on the left, that the universe is probably infinite, or at least does not have an edge. I share passages from other writers and offer a few myself, trying to make it clear who is speaking along the way.
Readers interested in further study are strongly encouraged to visit the online bibliography for Whitehead studies made available through the Center for Process Studies in Claremont, California. Click here if you would like to see their bibliography on Whitehead and cosmology. You will also want to check out their bibliographies on Whitehead and physics, chemistry, biology, and metaphysics. We begin with the idea that the universe is a multiverse.
The Universe is a Multiverse
From the smallest scale of quantum phenomena to the largest scale evolution of cosmoi and beyond, Whitehead argued that process is the fundamental idea. Part of his metaphysics involves a mereological theory that explains the whole-part relations in the extensive continuum of nature. Our universe, he conjectured, was born from the disintegration of a predecessor universe and another will emerge from the disintegration of ours. It is merely one cosmic epoch nestled within others spread out in temporal succession and spatial extension. A cosmic epoch is the largest society of events that are governed by a certain set of laws of nature. The term ‘society’ is here used in a mereological sense to specify the manner in which events form whole-part relations unified by some definite pattern, e.g., electron, atom, molecule, cell, … planet, solar system, galaxy, cosmic epoch…. More specifically, a cosmic epoch is a vast structured society which includes the vast nexus of interstellar space and the constituent structured galactic societies existing within a larger geometrical society permitting the possibility of diverse dimensionalities of space. Whitehead identifies our cosmic epoch as the four dimensional ’electromagnetic society,’ of which he credits James Clerk-Maxwell with the discovery of its general character.
The universe is a creative advance into novelty.